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Mushrooms reproduce by making billions of spores that spread and grow into new organisms. You can take advantage of this phenomenon to make a beautiful print on paper.  

How to Make Spore Prints

All you need are some fresh, open mushrooms, paper, and a bowl. You can use mushrooms found growing outside or buy them from the market. When selecting mushrooms for spore prints, look for these things:

  • The cap should be fully open with the gills exposed
  • The gills should look good, not wet and mushy
  • The mushroom should feel slightly moist but not wet; dry mushrooms will not work
  • There shoud not be mold spots on the mushroom
  • They should look like mushrooms you want to eat
PHOTO: Underside of a portabella mushroom.

This portabello mushroom is good for making spore prints.

PHOTO: Shiitake mushroom.

This shiitake mushroom may be a little old—notice the brown spots on the cap’s edges—but should work.

First, you should remove the stems. I use scissors so I don’t pull up or damage any of the gills.

Place the mushrooms with the gill side down on a piece of paper. Mushrooms with dark gills, like portabellos, have dark spores that show up well on white paper. Shiitake mushrooms have white gills and spores that will show up better on black paper. Some mushrooms make both dark and light spore prints.

PHOTO: Mushrooms, gills down, sitting on black construction paper.

These four shiitake mushrooms were placed on black paper. They will be covered with a bowl and then left overnight.

Place the paper on a tray or other surface that can handle something wet sitting on it because moisture from the mushrooms will soak into the paper and anything underneath it. Cover the mushrooms with a bowl to prevent them from drying out. Really ripe mushrooms will make a print in an hour, but I suggest that you leave them overnight to be sure you get results.

In the morning, carefully lift your bowl and the individual mushrooms and see what you get. If the paper absorbed a lot of moisture from the mushrooms, it may need to dry before you see the print very well—especially prints made on black paper. Portabello prints often show well-defined gills. Shiitake gills are not as straight and rigid as portabello gills, so you’ll get less gill definition in the print and a more wavy, swirling print. If your mushrooms are too wet, or are starting to rot, you’ll get more of a watercolor effect instead of a sharp print.

PHOTO: Mushroom spore print.

If all goes well, billions of spores will fall from the mushroom and produce a pattern that resembles the gills on the underside of the cap, like this portabello mushroom print.

PHOTO: Mushroom spore print.

Four shiitake mushrooms leave ghostly impressions on black paper. The swirled edges were made by the uneven surfaces of the mushroom caps.

PHOTO: Mushroom spore print.

The fine lines on this print look like they might have been drawn by an extremely sharp pencil, but the spores that compose the image are much smaller than the tip of a pencil.

A Little More about Mushroom Spores

Garden scientist Louise Egerton-Warburton recently told me, “Plants are cool, but fungus rules.” As a mycologist, fungus is her passion. Now, we aren’t really interested in competition or ranking organisms by levels of interest or importance because every living thing needs the others to survive. But the fact remains that we tend to forget about smaller things, especially those that tend to be hidden from view, so let’s take some time to meditate on mushrooms.

PHOTO: Stinkhorn fungus.

This stinkhorn fungus, Mutinus elegans, is growing out of the ground, but that is where its resemblance to green plants ends. It’s named for its obnoxious odor, which attracts flies that help distribute its spores.

Scientists used to think of mushrooms and other fungi as special kinds of plants. The problem is that, unlike plants, fungi do not get energy from photosynthesis. They are composed of different kinds of cells, they complete a different life cycle, and let’s face it: they don’t really even look like plants. So fungi are now grouped in their own kingdom of organisms, and nobody expects them to be anything like plants.

There are many different kinds of fungus, so for simplicity, let’s just think about the familiar mushroom with its stem and cap. This structure is actually the reproductive part of the organism, in the same way fruit is a reproductive structure in plants. (But we are not comparing plants and fungus!) Beneath the soil where you find mushrooms growing, there is a network of branching thread-like structures, called “hyphae,” which grow through the dead plant and animal matter in the soil and absorb nutrients. This is the main “body” of the fungus. As the fungus digests organic matter, it decomposes, making it useful for plants.

PHOTO: Laetiporus sulphureus fungus, or "Chicken of the Woods".

This “chicken of the woods” fungus, Laetiporus sulphureus, doesn’t look like a mushroom, but it also produces spores.

PHOTO: Mushrooms decomposing bark on the forest floor.

The fungus that produces these mushrooms is decomposing leaves and sticks that have fallen to the forest floor.

Back above ground, when conditions are favorable, a mushroom grows up from the hyphae. It matures and releases spores, which are like seeds. (It’s really hard to get away from comparing fungus with plants!) Spores are structurally different from seeds, even though they function to spread the organism in a similar way. Spores are microscopic and are so small that mycologists measure them in microns. A micron is one millionth of a meter.

PHOTO: A ruler measures the tip of a pencil lead.

How many spores could fit on the tip of a sharp pencil? A lot! No wonder the spore print is so fine and delicate!

Look at a metric ruler. See the smallest lines that mark millimeters? Imagine dividing a millimeter into one thousand equal parts. Fungus spores measure 3 to 12 microns. It hurts my eyes trying to imagine a spore sitting on my ruler. We can only see them when there is a mass of them on a spore print. Mycologists use a micron ruler built into their microscopes to measure the individual spores.

Tiny but essential: Fungus rules.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

While you are inside wondering if winter will bring another chilling polar vortex, or six feet of snow, or 40 degrees Fahrenheit and rain, join me in contemplating the sweetness of plants.

PHOTO: Burgundy leaves of the Bull's Blood sugar beet.

The common sugar beet, Beta vulgaris (this one is cultivar ‘Bull’s Blood’), is the source of our refined white sugar—not sugar cane!

All sugar comes from plants. All of it. Plants are the only thing on earth that can make sugar, and plants are made of sugars. Even plant cell walls are composed of a substance called cellulose, which is a compound sugar. Sugars from plants are the basis of our food chain.

Our favorite dietary sugar, sucrose, comes from the juices of sugar cane or sugar beets, which are boiled until the water evaporates, leaving the sugar crystals we all know and love as table sugar. Now that you know where your candy comes from, let’s use some sucrose to make a treat.

How to Make Rock (Sugar) Candy

Rock candy is pure, crystallized sucrose, and you can make it at home. This will take one to two weeks, so get started now if you want to give it to someone special for Valentine’s Day.

You will need

  • 1 cup water
  • 3 cups sugar, plus about a spoonful extra to coat the skewers
  • Food coloring (optional)
  • Flavoring (optional)
  • Bamboo skewers
  • Very clean, heat-resistant drinking glasses or glass jars (like Ball or Mason jars)
  • 2 clothespins
PHOTO: Tools and ingredients for making rock sugar candy laid out on the kitchen counter.

All the ingredients for the solution are assembled and ready to go. Note: the flavoring pictured here is not the best to use, because it contains alcohol. Use an essential oil for better results.

Directions

First, assemble the hardware. Cut the bamboo skewer to 6–8 inches, depending how long you want it. Attach two clothespins to one end. They will rest on the edges of your glass, suspending the skewer straight down in the glass without allowing it to touch the sides.

Cut a piece of paper towel with a hole in the center. This will go over the top of your glass to prevent dust from settling on the surface of the solution. Remove the paper towel and skewers; you’ll reassemble this after you’ve poured the solution in the glasses.

PHOTO: Glasses and skewers set up for making rock sugar candy.

Suspend the skewers using one or two clothespins as pictured here, and be ready to cover loosely with a piece of paper towel like the glass shown in the middle.

Important tip: The directions I followed (from a reputable source) instructed me to moisten the end of the skewer with water and roll it in some sugar to “seed” the formation of new crystals. When I tried this, the sugar crystals all fell off the skewer the minute I put them into the solution. Crystals will not grow on a bare skewer. What did work was dipping the skewer into the sugar solution (which you are about to make) and then rolling it in sugar. This kept the tiny sugar crystals stuck on the skewer and allowed larger crystals to grow.

Making the sugar solution. Pour 1 cup of water in a saucepan and heat to boiling. Then turn the heat to low. You do not want to boil the water after you have added sugar, or you will make a syrup that is stable and will not yield crystals. Add the 3 cups of sugar gradually, and stir to dissolve. Push down any crystals that form on the sides of the saucepan during heating to dissolve in the water. This takes some time! Your final solution should be clear—not cloudy at all—and you should not see any crystals.

PHOTO: Green-dyed rock sugar candy solution in a Mason jar.

You can choose to pour the liquid into two small glasses or one larger jar.

If you want to color or flavor your candy, now is the time. Add 2 to 3 drops of food color and/or 1/2 tsp of food-grade essential oils (like peppermint), and stir in thoroughly. Avoid using alcohol-based extracts like the bottle you see pictured in the blog. I’m not sure if this caused a failure during one of my trials, but I can say with certainty that I had better results when I used a flavoring oil.

Dip the end of the skewer a few inches into the solution and remove. Let the excess sugar water drain into the pot, and then roll the sticky end in dry granulated sugar to coat evenly. Set aside.

Pour the warm solution into the glass container(s), and fill to the top. With this recipe, you will get about 3 and 1/2 cups of solution, which will fill one jar or two glasses. You can scale the recipe up if you want more.

PHOTO: Rock sugar candy skewers.

After about eight days, you can see the cube-shaped sugar crystals on these skewers. The longer you leave them in the solution, the larger the crystals will grow.

Carefully lower the sugar-coated skewer into the solution, holding it in place with the clothespins. Cover lightly with the paper towel and place it in a safe location where nothing will bump it or land in it for at least one week—two weeks if you want larger crystals. Do not totally seal your glass or jar. The water needs to evaporate for the sugar to come out of solution and crystalize on the skewer. If all goes well, then over the next week you will see large crystals forming only on the skewer.

Got candy? Remove the skewer and drain the syrup. Eat immediately, or allow to dry, wrap in plastic, and save for later. Now that is what I call cultivating the power the plants!

One more thing: You can use string instead of a stick. Tie a small weight on the bottom and tie the top to the a pencil balanced on top of the glass so that the string hangs in the liquid.

PHOTO: A weighted string coated in rock sugar crystals.

The string was weighted with a metal nut so it would sink into the solution.

While you are waiting for your sucrose to crystalize, let’s contemplate where it came from.

Sugar from Plants

You probably know that plants harness energy from the sun to convert water and carbon dioxide into sugar and oxygen in a process we call photosynthesis.

PHOTO: diagram of a plant showing carbon dioxide and light energy entering the plant leaf andwater entering through the roots, while glucose is formed in the leaf and oxygen is released into the air.

This basic diagram shows photosynthesis in action.

The product of the reaction is a sugar called glucose, which is chemical energy that a plant can use to build plant cells and grow. The formula looks like this:

6CO2 + 6H2O (+ light energy) C6H12O6 + 6O2.

Translated, it means that inside plant cells, six carbon dioxide molecules and six water molecules combined with energy from the sun are converted into one sugar molecule and six oxygen molecules.

Glucose molecules are combined to form more complex sugars. Sucrose, or table sugar, has a molecular formula C12H22O11.  It looks like two glucose molecules stuck together, but missing one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms (or one water molecule).  

ILLUSTRATION: Sucrose molecule.

This sucrose molecule looks good enough to eat!

PHOTO: Sugar cubes.

Just kidding. It looks better in normal scale.

As I mentioned earlier in this post, plants are the only thing on earth that can make sugar. Through modern chemistry, food scientists have figured out how to extract and modify plant sugars more efficiently. They have also developed different kinds of sweeteners, because the food industry is always striving to develop less expensive ways to satisfy our craving for sweets, as well as supply alternative sweeteners for different dietary needs. Some sugars you may see on food labels include dextrose (which is another name for glucose), sucrose, fructose, high fructose corn syrup, maltose, and sucralose. All of these “natural” sweeteners were processed from plants, even though they do not exist without help from a laboratory.

Have you noticed that all of these sugars, including the sugars in plant cell wall structures, have names that end in “ose”? That is no accident. The suffix “ose” is the conventional way chemists identify a substance is a sugar. Go ahead, share that information at your next party as you consume goodies made from plant sugars. Having some chemistry facts at your sticky fingertips makes you sound smart while you’re nibbling on sweet treats.

PHOTO: Fresh produce in a wicker basket.

Yum!

Please enjoy sucrose crystals responsibly, as part of a balanced diet that includes forms of sugars closer to their origins. (In other words, eat fruits and vegetables, too.) And remember to brush your teeth!


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

My daughters love fresh grapefruit, and winter is the season when this fruit is at its best. Instead of throwing away the rind, we decided to make a bird feeder. This is a great winter project for the family.

PHOTO: The supplies needed for the project.

The grapefruit sections have been cut and eaten; the rind is ready to become our bird feeder.

To make a grapefruit bird feeder you will need:

  • Half a grapefruit rind (you can also use an orange)
  • Three pieces of yarn, each cut about 18 inches long
  • A knife, skewer, pointed scissors, or other sharp tool
  • Birdseed

First, eat the grapefruit and drain the remaining liquid. Then, use the skewer or knife to poke three holes in the grapefruit. They should be about half an inch from the top edge and spaced evenly around the circumference. (Some people do this with four strings, but I find that using three strings makes it easier to balance the fruit.)

Push a piece of yarn through each hole and tie it off.

PHOTO: Skewering the grapefruit rind.

Hold the grapefruit firmly with one hand while you poke the skewer through the rind. Be careful not to poke your finger!

PHOTO: Tying yarn to the grapefruit to hang it.

Pull 2-3 inches through the rind and tie the short end to the longer strand.

Hold the grapefruit up by all three strings and adjust the length of the strands so the fruit is not tipping. When it is balanced, knot the strings together about 4 or 5 inches from the top. (The ends will probably be uneven, and that is all right.) Make a loop knot with those top ends, so you will be able to hang it from a branch. 

PHOTO: The final product.

Our grapefruit bird feeder is balanced, full of seed, and ready to hang outside.

Finally, fill the fruit with birdseed and hang it outside for your feathered friends to enjoy. If you like, you can add a little suet, but you may find it doesn’t stick well to the wet fruit. Here in the Chicago area, you’ll probably find that most of your winter guests are black-capped chickadees, nuthatches, dark-eyed juncos, common redpolls, and downy or hoary woodpeckers, who balance their primary diet of insects and grubs with bit of suet and sunflower seeds.

One more thing: Make sure it’s tied to the branch firmly so that your local (determined) squirrels — who will also find this bird feeder appealing — don’t knock it down.

Don’t worry if you don’t have any visitors the first few days after you’ve placed your feeder. It can take up to two weeks for birds to discover their new food source, but once they do, they tell all their friends in the neighborhood.

PHOTO: Grapefruit birdfeeder hung from a snow-covered fir.

The final product is ready for visitors.

What is birdseed?

You probably know that if you plant birdseed, you won’t grow a bird. And there is no such thing as a birdseed plant. So what plants make birdseed? What we call “birdseed” most commonly comes from two sources: millet, which is a grass, and sunflower. Other seeds used to feed birds include thistle, safflower, cracked corn, and sorghum seed, which is also called milo. Some birds have a preference for certain kinds of seeds, so bird lovers stock their feeders with seeds to attract their favorite birds and keep them visiting the feeder.

After you hang your bird feeder, take some of the seed and plant it to see what grows. Maybe you can grow your own food for the birds this year!


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Christmas Tree Taxonomy

Kathy J. —  December 14, 2013 — Leave a comment
PHOTO: A student in class is examining evergreen needles.

Quick quiz: is this boy holding a twig of conifer, evergreen, or both?

Every winter, as a public garden, the Chicago Botanic Garden turns its educational programming attention—as well as its decorations—to the only plants that stay green through the season: the evergreens. We teach class after class of school children how to identify different kinds of evergreens by their needles and cones.

It’s a lesson in sorting and classifying plants—in other words: taxonomy. 

Conifer vs. Evergreen

Every year we remind students of the meanings of the words “evergreen” and “conifer”—they are not the same thing!—and every year, someone is confused. I blame Christmas trees.

PHOTO: Venn diagram showing a christmas tree in the intersection of the sets "evergreens" and "conifers."


The “Christmas Tree” intersects both of the sets “evergreens” and “conifers”—it’s both!

First, it’s important to understand that evergreens are any plants that remain green through the winter, like pine, spruce, fir, and Douglas fir. Conifers, on the other hand, are a classification of trees that produce seeds inside cones. These trees include pine, spruce, fir, and Douglas fir. Wait a minute…those are are the same trees!

You see, the problem is that our Christmas trees tend to be both evergreen and conifer, and as a result, many of us have forgotten the difference. To help us illustrate the definitions of the two terms, let’s look at some evergreens and conifers that do not fall into the intersection of those groups.

ILLUSTRATION: Charlie Brown and Snoopy with a sad-looking, needle-free tree sporting a single ornament.

Charlie Brown’s tree might have been a bald cypress.

One conifer that loses its needles, and therefore is not an evergreen, is the bald cypress. These can be very attractive when covered in snow. (The bald cypress trees growing in the Heritage Garden have been pruned at the top and look like candelabras.) The needles on these trees change color in fall—the same way deciduous trees like maples and oaks do—and drop to the ground, making them look, well, bald.

Boxwoods and rhododendrons are woody plants that keep their green leaves all winter, but they do not produce cones. Boxwoods are occasionally used in wreaths and can be found in many places around the Garden.

PHOTO: Closeup of a bald cypress branch in golden fall color.

Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) is called “bald” for a reason—its needles change color and fall in autumn just like deciduous trees such as maples and oaks.

PHOTO: Boxwood in the Japanese Garden.

Boxwood in winter in the Malott Japanese Garden: these true evergreens may yellow a bit with winter, but keep their foliage.

Now here is where things actually do get confusing. Female yews produce a bright red “berry” that might make you think they are just evergreens. Actually, when you take a close look at the hard core at the center of this berry, you would see small, closed scales like those on any other “pine” cone. Yep. Juniper “berries” are also modified cones. That means yew and juniper are both evergreen and conifer.

PHOTO: Closeup of yew berries showing seed/nut inside the berry.

Yew berries (Taxus baccata)
Photo by Frank Vincentz, via Wikimedia Commons

So call your Christmas tree an evergreen or a conifer—you will be correct either way. But it’s worth remembering what the two terms mean. Recognizing how things are alike and different is the driving force behind taxonomy and is also fundamental to understanding the natural world.

Have a wonderful holiday season!


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Fight your Winter Blues!

Combat Seasonal Affective Disorder with Horticultural Therapy

Clare Johnson —  December 1, 2013 — Leave a comment

As I stepped out of my house this morning, I thought: “I can smell winter.” It’s that subtle shift that you feel as the days click on, and we are led farther away from the beloved fall season.

The days continue to get shorter, and the sun doesn’t seem to shine quite as bright so naturally; moods shift, and energy becomes muted. I have a number of friends and family members who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. Its abbreviation says it all: lackluster moods, low energy, and even mild depression.

Seasonal Affective Disorder is defined as depression associated with late autumn and winter, thought to be caused by a lack of light. Most people with seasonal affective disorder have symptoms that start in the fall and continue through the winter months, which in the Midwest, can seem endless. Lucky enough, there are many ways to remedy this SAD state of mind. 

HT ‘Simmering Spices’ supply list for 15 participants

Let’s begin by talking about a few winter-themed Horticultural Therapy (HT) activities that will fill your home or office with the sights and smells of the season.

One of my favorite HT activities to do this time of year is our ‘Simmering Spices’ project. During this activity, participants mix together a wide array of spices to create a holiday sachet to use in their home or office, or give as a gift. This activity serves as therapy on multiple levels. It encourages participants to engage their fine motor skills as they measure, mix, and create the sachets. Perhaps more meaningful, however, are the vivid and wonderful memories that are brought forth with the smells of the spices. 

Scent triggers the area of the brain that is connected to the experience of emotion as well as emotional memory. I see this time and time again in my sessions; a participant smells a spice such as rosemary and become engulfed with memories of his or her mother’s roast turkey during the holidays. Socialization plays a large role in horticultural therapy, and it’s a joy to share in the memories with my many participants; young and old.

Holiday greens ornament

Holiday greens ornaments example

Another fun, and inexpensive, activity is our ‘Holiday Greens Ornament’ project. For this activity, participants get the opportunity to create a beautiful ornament out of fresh, seasonal greens. When I bring this activity to one of my school classrooms, I like to incorporate a garden walk as part of the session. The students, teachers, and I take a quick (and if it’s cold, very quick) walk around the school gathering small acorns and pine cones to add more interest to the ornaments. 

Most of the craft supplies for the activity can be found at your local craft store. I use clear, plastic ornaments, fake snow, and ribbon to add additional visual appeal to the greens. These ornaments make a beautiful addition to any tree or gift to a loved one. 

My final recommendation to combat those winter blues is to fully embrace the beauty of the season. Winter is not always the easiest season to get along with; that much I’ll admit. It’s cold and gray and seemingly endless, but it’s also fascinating and full of unique beauty. 

If you’re feeling blue, bundle up and take yourself on a walk around your neighborhood, and appreciate our region and its four distinctly different and beautiful seasons. As you walk, gather some pine cones, and create a fresh wreath using natural supplies. Activities like these will turn a SAD state of mind to a glad one, with just a bit of effort. And of course, if all else seems gray, a nice hot cup of hot cocoa (which always tastes better in the winter) and some whipped cream will surely add a bit more enjoyment to any activity or winter’s day. 

Happy holidays!